Travels November 2005

The Mother Load

"Oh, my God—Southwest to Tampa with a thousand people!" In France our correspondent gets an inside look at the new Airbus A380, the world's biggest passenger plane—and actually kind of likes what he sees

The simulator we were in was computer-linked to the Iron Bird. Two pilots in sports clothes sat at the controls while people with clipboards stood behind them taking notes. The pilots didn't seem to do much. Mostly they tapped on computer keyboards or fiddled with a trackball mouse. This was what was causing the frenetic activity in the Iron Bird—a teenager's immersion in Grand Theft Auto leading to an actual car's being stolen somewhere.

I sat in the pilot seat of another simulator. Peter took the copilot position. There wasn't even a jump seat for Debra. "This whole big damn thing," I said, "is flown by … you and me?"

"Yep," Peter said, "and it doesn't need me."

I, however, couldn't find any controls except rudder pedals to pump. I hope these weren't computer-linked to anything and that I didn't initiate wild yaw that knocked any Iron Bird engineers off their ramps and ladders. In front of me, instead of a yoke, was a foldout desktop. Perhaps these days the most important function of a pilot is to fill out Homeland Security forms with information on suspicious passengers.

"Look over to your left," Peter said.

"But it's like the joystick on an Atari game," I said.

"Yep," Peter said.

"Could you fly one of these?" I asked. "I mean, and land it?"

"Yep," Peter said. "The computers do all the work."

And there were a lot of computers—eight LCD screens. They showed … well, they showed lots of things.

"I've never played Atari," I said.

Debra explained that the A380 has essentially the same computer hardware and, indeed, essentially the same cockpit as all other Airbus aircraft, from the 107-seat A318 on up.

"So you just build a plane," I said, "and the cockpit plugs in like a memory stick."

"I don't think we put it that way in the promotional literature," Debra said.

The promotional literature cites the advantages of "Flight Operational Commonality." Airbus estimates that pilots of its A340 series aircraft, which carry 300 to 380 passengers, can be certified to fly the A380 with just a week or two of additional training, thanks to the adaptive flexibility of computer technology.

I've never liked computers as much as I like the stuff that I call hardware. Computers seem a little too adaptively flexible, like the strange natives, odd societies, and head cases we study in the social sciences. There's more opposable thumb in the digital world than I care for; it's awfully close to human.

"Does spam ever pop up on the cockpit computer screens?" I asked. "Or unwanted Jude Law babysitter sex videos?"

"No," said Debra.

Debra took us to the A380 interior mock-up, to see how the human beings that we'll be awfully close to will be seated on the A380. Toulouse, of course, is where Lautrec was from—he of perfect proportions for modern airline seating. But I didn't mention it. Debra did mention that Airbus has no final responsibility for what airlines do with the A380's interior, let alone for the behavior of the passengers. But Airbus tries to keep air steerage from being foisted on the public. And the designers of the A380 interior mock-up tried to wrest the graciously spacious from the ghastly vast.

Clever partitioning eliminated the tube-of-doom look and gave the rows of seats theaterlike proportions. In theaters, after all, people regularly sit more tightly confined in harder chairs for worse experiences than an airline flight. At least that was my experience with Rent. In the forward cabin wide steps rose to the upper deck, and in the tail a spiral staircase descended. For some reason a spiral staircase always adds zest to a setting. Perhaps it speaks to the DNA helix in us all.

Airbus wasn't trying to kid anyone with this mock-up. No bowling alleys, squash courts, or lap pools were to be seen. Instead there was a small duty-free shop, a couple of miniature barrooms where you could stand with your foot on the rail, a nook with built-in davenports, and other places in which you could stretch, be free and easy, and not feel like you were trapped in a Broadway extravaganza and would catch hell from your wife and the eighteen people between you and the aisle if you bolted.

The first-class section, of course, was supplied with those investment bankers' La-Z-Boys—Laissez-Faire-Boys, if you will—that can turn themselves into club chairs, chaise longues, or featherbeds and are equipped with buttons to press to get practically anything you want other than Jude Law's babysitter. Business class had something similar, with maybe one fewer caviar spoon and champagne bucket per customer.

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P. J. O'Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book is Peace Kills.

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